A recent article in The Root by law professor Sherrilyn A. Ifill very eloquently highlighted the lack of convictions of the leading U.S. military and civilian personnel involved in the rendition of detainees to secret prisons around the world and prolific use of torture as an intelligence gathering tool.
Although I agree in principle with Ms. Ifill when she argues that inaction by the U.S. Federal Government on the issue of torture is damning to U.S. international prestige, I feel Ms. Ifill fails to answer two questions that are important for her call to action to gain traction. First, how does the absence of convictions of U.S. leaders supporting torture harm U.S international prestige? And second, why is the loss international prestige a significant concern for the U.S.?
The answer to the latter question is relatively simple, so I will discuss it first. The U.S. relies on its allies for its national security despite its status as one of the strongest nations in the world. This is because today’s U.S. national security threats no longer take the form of interstate conflict, but rather of actors with no geographic affiliation (e.g., terrorist groups). As such, the U.S. requires the cooperation of many different governments around the world to maintain domestic and international security.
For example, to target a terrorist cell in Malaysia the U.S. would need the cooperation of the Malaysian government and people, as without such support getting access to Malaysian airspace and intelligence would be virtually impossible. In a world where the U.S. enjoys the support of its allies, this type of task is relatively easy. However, when the U.S. suffers from diminishing international prestige because of questionable practices like torture this same task becomes much more difficult, as nations and their people are reluctant to cooperate.
Moreover, as former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Harvard Professor Joseph S. Nye notes in his seminal book Soft Power, the War On Terrorism can only be won when moderate Muslims are able to definitively displace radical ones in Middle Eastern states. Unfortunately for the U.S, its recent torture practices have provided radical Muslim groups with the rhetorical ammunition they need to recruit an increasing number of Muslims into their cause.
To be sure, a recent article in Comparative Political Studies by James I. Walsh and James A. Piazza finds that U.S. torture practices facilitate terrorist recruitment by radicalizing moderate Muslim populations against the U.S. And this finding makes sense in light of the number of Muslims who have yet to decide their loyalties in the War on Terrorism, which is to say that by engaging in torture, the U.S. allows for the radicalization of these “fence-sitters” in support of anti-American terrorist causes.
With this in mind, the answer to the question of why failure to demonstrate accountability for Bush-era torture policies harms U.S international prestige is very simple. By failing to hold leaders complicit in U.S. torture practices around the world accountable, the U.S. sends the message to moderate Muslims and its allies that it does not consider the prosecution of torture an important concern.
By broadcasting such a message, the U.S. encourages its allies to engage in similar behavior. Indeed, in the past several years countries like China, Russia and Sri Lanka have all invoked U.S. torture practices to publicly justify their own policies. One particularly salient example occurred in 2008, when China released a report that publicly accused the U.S. of hypocrisy in condemning its human rights record. This type of reaction to U.S. torture practices is not unexpected however, as Joseph S. Nye and Richard L. Armitage recognize during an April 2008 congressional hearing: “[America] cannot denounce torture and water boarding in other countries and condone it at home.”
Clearly U.S. torture practices give other nations license to make a mockery of U.S. global leadership, undermining U.S. prestige and international influence in the process. As one 2007 World Opinion Poll showed, 49% of respondents (the largest plurality) believed that the U.S. had an overall negative impact on the world; in the same poll 67% of respondents indicated that they disapproved of the way in which the U.S. treated detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
All of this is to say that the U.S.’s history of torture and failed attempts at redemption are and will continue to be problematic for U.S. global leadership and national security. The Obama Administration must therefore move beyond rhetoric and demand accountability from those most involved in the instigation of U.S. torture around the world. Only through this show of leadership and strength can the U.S. rebuild its international credibility and prestige.
This article was originally published at Yahoo Associated Content. View the article here. Zain Pasha is the Executive Director of Electronic Publishing for The Triple Helix Inc and the founder of The Triple Helix Online. Follow him on Twitter